Many of us who preach sermons have struggled a time or two with preparing these messages. Some of these struggles might include stage fright, either lack of self-confidence or too much of it, keeping the balance between speaking to the people for God and realizing, “I need to hear this myself!” You probably can come up with a list of your own struggles.
I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on preparing and delivering sermons; it’s only by God’s grace and calling that He gave me the privilege and responsibility of preparing His messages so that I might deliver them. I humbly admit I don’t claim any special privileges or bonus points for answering God’s call. He chose me, and I can’t think of anything else to say.
Now, there are some things I’ve learned through the years:
1. First, please be sure you are truly born again, having salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That unsaved people have delivered great, awe-inspiring, eloquent messages (indeed, sermons) is clear. The difference is they really don’t know the reality of what they’re expressing. I could study art, for example, and tell you how to select the colors to combine or leave alone, describe the various brush strokes and shading techniques, explain how to do dry-brushing, or comment on the different types of paper, canvas, etcetera for a background.
However, if I tried to draw a picture or create a painting, it would be very clear very soon that I’m no artist! My youngest son attended a Christian school for a couple of years, and I was discussing art with the art teacher. My comment was, innocently enough, that there were two types of people: those who can make art and those who appreciate it—and did I really appreciate art! She got upset with me!
So we can see that it’s important to know the Person and the Book we’re preaching about. How anyone can read the gospels, for example, and remain unsaved is a mystery to me, but it’s happened before and it’s happening now.
2. Next, please consider the context. This is important. When a verse or passage is taken out of its context, it’s anybody’s guess what could happen. People do this often. For example, consider God’s command to Joshua and the Israelites to destroy the people of Canaan. Those who are offended and object to this clearly haven’t done much research into the people of Canaan. By the time of Joshua, the Canaanites were among the most depraved people of history! When God told them what to expect, He knew what the Canaanites had been doing, and He didn’t want the Israelites to fall victim to the same degeneration of the Canaanites.
It also follows that they did not distinguish between the dispensations of law and the others, and that Israel was an independent country, seeking to reclaim their inheritance in the promised land.
Another thing we mean by context is the audience of any given passage. For example, some questions any student of Scripture might ask include these: Who is speaking: God, a man, a woman, an angel, Satan or an animal? Who is listening: Is someone speaking to God, another human or a spiritual being? What is the topic: Is this conversation between people, someone pouring out his or her heart to God, or is God giving direction to His people?
The historical settings are important, too. Knowing who lived where and who ruled over whom at any given time is another tool for accurately preparing a message. The Old Testament shows Israel at times independent and at other times conquered by other nations. Through all of this, we still can see God’s hand in protecting His chosen people. For example, knowledge of Roman customs would help explain why the Jewish priests and leaders had to appeal to Pilate in order to have Jesus crucified. Legally, the Jews couldn’t do it, so they had to approach the Roman governor for Roman permission to have a fellow Jew crucified. Amazing.
Understanding the context gives us the framework from which to build a sermon or series of sermons. This also reduces the number of frivolous sermons such as one I remember reading about: A certain preacher didn’t like women piling their hair on top of their heads, so he used as his text, “Top (k)not come down” based on the verse, “let him who is on the house top not come down”. Incredibly, that very example was listed in a book on how to prepare sermons which I read many years ago. The writer didn’t record the reaction to that message, by the way.
3. Something that beginning preachers don’t always do but should (from the voice of experience) is to analyze your audience. This may not always apply to guest speakers, interim or transitional pastors, or those in a similar situation, so let me address that separately.
What do I mean by “analyze the audience”? Look at it like this: A group of mature Christians may not be the best group for a message focused on salvation. They’re already saved! As a guest speaker once shared, a professor at a local Christian college wanted to speak where the speaker was serving as pastor. The professor spoke in the morning, as the story goes, on “The Hypostatic Union of the Two Natures of Christ” and the congregation, the speaker related, caught up on some much-needed rest. Some, he said, snored! It was more of the same in the evening when the professor expounded on “The Indigenous Church.” The speaker had said his church consisted mainly of dirt farmers who came to church to worship the Lord and had little need for things that didn’t speak to their hearts.
Really, all we need to do is look at the New Testament. How did the Lord Jesus Christ analyze His audience? He used variable methods as He spoke with different groups of people. The conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 is quite different than how He spoke with the rich young ruler and differs more in His encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4). He preached to the crowds and to small groups, as well as to people who came to hear Him when He spoke in the temple. The method or tactic may have been different, but the objective was always the same: to show and share God’s love and for them to believe.
I mentioned supply, interim and guest preachers/speakers, and here’s my reason: Sometimes it’s impossible to truly get a feel for any given church. Even if the contact person can give you a basic rundown of what to expect, this does not and cannot give you the overall dynamics of how that church will respond to your message. I’ve been in some churches that were so quiet I could hear the pages turn; others had folks who were quite vocal in their responses (“Amen, brother!” “Yeah, that’s right!”) to the sermon. The point is each group is a very distinct flock, and a substitute won’t have the same effect as a congregation’s regular pastor or shepherd. This shouldn’t discourage you, though, from bringing God’s message to a group. You’ll be rewarded some day for being faithful, and the church where you speak will receive a blessing, too.
So try to get as much info as possible (without being nosy) from the contact. Many people are glad to say good things about their church, but are reluctant to admit something may not be perfect. I mean, aren’t we the same way? Do we really want to admit we have something wrong, even when we go to the doctor? Denial is one truly universal problem!
Let me hasten to add I am not randomly listing points. Any and every preacher should have the assurance of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean every preacher is truly born again, but it would help immensely! Also, the knowledge of contexts is something every believer can and should do as much as possible in his or her own Bible study, devotions, quiet time or whatever one chooses to call it. Not only does this give a better structure or framework, but it helps to keep the whole pattern or program in focus. Realizing God had a plan for Israel and the church is one key concept; realizing they are two vastly different agencies with specific information for each is another. Knowing who the audience will be is a big help in preparing the message.
4. The biggest hurdle for me as an interim or supply speaker was finding the best text. I’ve alluded to how sometimes a church contact—sometimes a deacon or another member—may not be able to give you a lot of specifics. I remember an encounter when I had been asked to fill the pulpit for a few weeks at a certain church, one I hadn’t heard of before. A deacon spoke with me and gave me as good a preparation as I could hope for. Then that Sunday morning, I asked him, “What did the last speaker use as a text?” A cough, a stammer, and a slightly embarrassed, “brother, I don’t rightly remember” had to be painful for that deacon, but I understood. Some preachers start with a verse, end with an invitation, but leave you wondering how you got to where you ended from where you started. My prayer is that none of my messages ever would be so meandering!
So, it might be helpful to have a couple of general purpose messages ready for situations such as these. Please, though, do not go to a sermon library or database and steal somebody else’s message to palm off as your own. That doesn’t wash, especially here.
Some ideas for general messages might be the fact Jesus intercedes for us; another might be one of Paul’s encounters in the Book of Acts, how he went, preached and evaluated the results (
5. The most important point of all—PRAY. The Lord wants us as preachers to be prepared, yet He wants us to do our work in His power. Sure, we can use wisdom of words, oratory or any number of things; but unless we have God’s blessing, it won’t amount to much. Those of us who believe in prayer know this to be s to study and absorb the knowledge, then pray the Lord will give us the best words to make His message known.
Preaching is demanding, but it’s rewarding. I pray that each one of us can be used of God in a way that demonstrates His Love and His Word to many, many people. God bless.